Review by C.J. Bunce
Let’s cut to the chase: Daniel Godfrey’s new novel The Synapse Sequence is not just the leading contender for the best science fiction novel of 2018, it’s the most absorbing, riveting, and thrilling science fiction novel I’ve read since I was first blown away by Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in 1990. Hyperbole? Maybe just a little, but when you are reading a new book and you’re taken aback by the twists, turns, and surprises as this book provides, it’s a bit like walking out of a big rock concert, wanting everyone else to witness what you just experienced. Godfrey is relatively new to the genre, with two solid sci-fi books behind him, New Pompeii (reviewed here) and Empire of Time (reviewed here). But this story is a completely different take on science fiction, and so deftly written, smartly paced, and completely believable in its speculative reach, Godfrey is worth comparison to some of the greats in the genre for it.
Anna Glover is an investigator with an unfortunately troubled and public past for her conclusions in investigating an airplane crash. She lives in the somewhat distant future–bots serve man, taking on so many functions that personal freedom is limited. As told from the alternating viewpoint of Glover in the present and looking back on her life, future London is very familiar and steeped in the world that technology is building right now with so much of life absorbed into the digital world. When we meet our protagonist she is attempting to lie low conducting trials for a company with an emerging technology, a “synapse sequencer,” which allows a person to be tapped into the mind of another, like a witness to a crime, to experience vivid, shared memories as an observer. She meets with her boss inside this world, where he lives out most of his life, a life better than he would experience in the real world. The process requires the help of a monitor, and hers sees that she gets in and out of submersion safely. But we learn there are risks for anyone who participates in this intermingling of brain activity. If you’ve seen the 1980s sci-fi classic Dreamscape, the modern classic Source Code, the television series Stitchers, or the shared visions of iZombie, you’ll find no suspension of disbelief issue with the wild ride that awaits you. The method for the journey isn’t as elaborate (or glitch-filled) as Connie Willis’s elaborate time travel tech, but Godfrey provides enough to submerge us into the stress and angst of Glover as she takes journey after journey to learn the who and why of a case involving a boy in a coma and a missing girl.
You can’t predict where Godfrey will take Glover from chapter to chapter in The Synapse Sequence. Godfrey has been likened to an emerging Crichton, but Crichton rarely could craft as satisfying an ending as found here. The story embraces that speculative futurism like many a Philip K. Dick story (Paycheck, Total Recall/We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, and Minority Report for starters), while weaving in a plausible future from the seeds of new tech today. He combines the audacious duplicity of Vincent and Jerome in Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca with the foreboding and despair of The Man’s story in Chris Marker’s Le Jetée and Cole’s in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.
This is not the novel for a quick, one-sitting read–you’ll miss the meaning and depth as the threads take us to a variety of suspects and motives until they collide in the unexpected final chapters, and you’ll want to re-read it to look back over some clever sleight-of-hand by Godfrey. Underneath the science fiction is a detective story of the pulp crime genre, complete with a down-and-out private eye getting in the way of Glover’s pursuit. Yet some of the characters are completely new, like the comatose boy N’Golo Durrant, Glover’s strangely nostalgic boss Jake, and even Glover herself, a tormented, conscientious, and crafty heroine.
Does the synapse sequencer have merit to be the RoboCop or PreCrime of the future and usher in a new era of police investigation, or propel us closer to the Skynet of The Terminator? The hard science of the process isn’t as important as the questions asked of the self, the human condition, of free will, questions wrestled with very differently but with similar gravitas by past science fiction masters Daniel Keyes and Walter M. Miller, Jr.
Books like The Synapse Sequence are why fans of science fiction read science fiction. A dark, tech noir thriller that has it all, The Synapse Sequence is available in bookstores now and here at Amazon.